There are few things that match the joy of unexpectedly discovering something good. Whether it’s discovering money on the ground or learning a new concept in a class, joy floods our hearts when we find something good that we didn’t expect to find. Unfortunately, unexpected is not the word most people would use to describe our church services. Instead, words such as predictable and routine characterize our congregations. Few people seem to discovery anything new unexpectedly in our services.

This is why Paul’s comments about the unexpected joy of forgiveness in Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17 are so encouraging. Here, Paul identifies Abraham as someone who unexpectedly discovered the joy of forgiveness. The story of Abraham is one well-known to church goers and students of the Bible. We all know how the story ends. For Abraham, the one living the story, each twist and turn was unexpected. To Abraham and his family, life probably seemed more serpentine than a direct path.

Discovering Righteousness by Faith (Rom. 4:1-5)
As Paul tells Abraham’s story, he relies heavily on the Genesis narrative, especially chapters 12 and 15. In his lifetime, Abraham unexpectedly discovered that one is made right with God on the basis of faith rather than the basis of human efforts. For Paul, the proof of this comes from Genesis 15:6, which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This act of God occurred prior to Abraham’s circumcision, which formed the seal of his covenant relationship with God. Prior to the covenant being sealed by circumcision, God sealed Abraham as righteous. Abraham’s standing with God came on the basis of faith.

There’s nothing that could’ve prepared Abraham for this experience. The reality of what we now call “justification by faith” is something that can come only by divine revelation. There’s nothing in the world or in our minds to prepare us for this truth. Everything in our experience tells us that people earn other people’s favor. Gifts come by meriting them.

Frequently we stereotype Old Testament figures as languishing under the legalistic burden of the law. However, Paul describes King David as discovering the joy of forgiveness in verses 6-8. The example of David reminds us that righteousness always has come by faith. This was true prior to God giving the law (as evidenced in Abraham), after the law (as evidenced by David) and since Jesus’ coming.

So long as we strive to earn merit with God, we find ourselves looking for wages from God rather than a gift from God (v. 4). This struggle colors our entire relationship with God, as we picture God as a Boss and Master rather than a Father, Lover and Friend. The unexpected joy of forgiveness frees us to see God more as He truly is.

Wrath by Law (Rom. 4:13-17)
A key question with which Paul struggled was: If righteousness always has come to people by faith (as it did for Abraham and for David), why did God give the law through Moses? If the law is not God’s instrument to make us righteous (as is faith’s purpose), then what role does the law perform? There are many passages in Paul’s writings that seek to answer this question.

First we must clarify what is intended by the word law. In Paul’s writings, the word law almost always refers to the Pentateuch, specifically the laws given to Moses in the Old Testament.1 The point in these verses is that God added the law of Moses to give definition to sin. As Thomas Schreiner says, “the law provides a standard by which sin can be technically defined.”2 Thus, rather than giving the law to remedy the problem of sin, God gives the law to define the extent of sin. God’s strategy seems to be to show how bad sin is before sending His Son to deal with sin once and for all.

Thus, for those who rely on the law to find forgiveness, the law brings wrath (v. 14). Instead of discovering the unexpected joy of forgiveness that Abraham and David found, the person relying on the law discovers wrath.

This is why Paul urges us to approach God by faith, not looking to earn a credit or wages, but looking to receive a promise. The open hands of faith are able to receive the free gift of forgiveness.

Maybe you’ve seen a monkey try to get candy out of a bottle. So long as the monkey’s fist is clenched around the candy, it can’t get its hand out of the bottle. The only way to be free from the bottle is to let go of the candy. The same is true in our relationship with God. So long as we try to clench to our actions to merit God’s acceptance, we’re stuck. It is only when we loosen our grip and release our attempts to impress God and open our hands in faith that we receive forgiveness.

This is the joy Paul experienced in his conversion. It’s the joy he saw in retrospect looking back on his heroes Abraham and David. Is it your experience as well?

1 Thomas Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), p. 38).
2 Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment, p. 75.

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